We’re in the rough part of winter in the Midwest, where we will see temperatures between -20ºF and 50ºF over the next two months, with the potential of snow and rain (of both the frozen and unfrozen varieties). These can be rough months to get through—made even more difficult if you are in a tough teaching positions.
I try to be very careful about what I post about my position, but my position is a tough position in a Title 1 school, and there are unique challenges in my particular position as students have to take music, and if they aren’t in band or orchestra, they are in choir. We’re also trying to integrate PBIS, the first year of a five to seven year process—and if PBIS is true (I think it is…PBIS is how teachers in healthy schools have always taught), then we also have to acknowledge that anti-PBIS is true. Either your 60% of compliant students will impact the other 40% (I’m using skewed numbers reflecting my position), or the 40% of non-compliant students will impact the 60%. Change is slow and hard. And the issues aren’t solely in my classroom—they are present throughout the school (Otherwise, the answer is pretty simple: find a new teacher).
We have a new principal (who is excellent), we open a new school with different boundaries (and thus student population) in the fall, we are continuing with PBIS, and 8th Grade music will become an elective instead of a required course. As a result, eight months from now, my position will look very different than it has for the past 9 years (this is my 5th year in this position). That’s all good…but how do you make it through the next five months?
I am tired of the educational “gurus” who keep laying the blame on teachers. If you think teachers are the problem, then get off your hiney and come work alongside those teachers and stop preaching at them from your social media pulpit. In the process of chastising teachers, those who are doing what you suggest will simply puff themselves up, those that aren’t going to do it will still ignore you, and those in broken positions will take the admonition to heart, adding more weight to their “heart” that already feels as if they are to blame.
We also have to accept that some systems are broken, regardless of how much time you put into relationships with students. I’m not saying that you shoudn’t build relationships with students—but I don’t know many teachers in this day and age who do not! There are a few, sure—but they are far and few between. In an industry where we are seeing teachers leave the field in less than three years, we need to start caring about the physical and mental well-being of teachers. I fear that a lot of mental harm is done to teachers who are admonished for not working hard enough, not caring enough, and not doing enough to reach students. This has to stop.
If you are a teacher in a happy, healthy situation—I celebrate with you. I’ve been there with you, and I know how great that experience is. Enjoy that time to the fullest and make it last as long as you can. For those teachers who are in less than ideal situations—and you’re stuck in your position, I want to bring two tools to you today.
The first is simply a post by Tracy King, a music educator who has a presence on social media and sells a number of materials on Teachers Pay Teachers. She wrote a blog about dealing with teacher burnout, and if your batteries are running low, read that blog post (link).
The second is for me to admit that I have always relied on my loud voice throughout my career. I am an operatic tenor with the ability to produce a Decibel level approaching that of a jet taking off (well, not really). When I was teaching high school choir, music theory, music history, or guitar, my students generally chose to be there and thus were invested in what they were doing. I only raised my voice when I wanted to—usually as a joke. Perhaps there were classes of 9th grade boys that needed more volume than others, but I generally just used my normal singing and talking voice (and I’m loud, as my wife would be happy to tell you)
Since I began teaching music to students at the middle school level, where a healthy percentage of students would rather not be in the class, I have found myself regularly suffering from vocal fatigue and connected illnesses. I have had to be louder and larger to gain their attention. Yes, I am aware that there are quieting techniques such as EnVoy (I am learning about EnVoy as part of my personal development plan this year), but those techniques are less effective when an entire school staff has to be louder and larger to fight an anti-PBIS environment (again, we’re in year 1 of a multi-year process). As we moved to ukulele for a couple of months in the middle of the year, I found myself dreading the volume I would need to project over fifty ukuleles (as well as the students who simply keep strumming no matter what—the same students that if you take away the ukulele will disrupt your class in other more significant ways). I thought back to my master’s work, where I took a class on “Body and Mind,” where the instructor (a voice therapist) begged all of us to use voice amplification systems. I ignored that advice—I was teaching high school music to kids that listened, which didn’t stress out my voice (he also suggested that we don’t sing along with our students—something I still struggle with when teaching students. Guess what I start doing when we go back to singing on a daily basis in March?).
I opened a new high school nine years ago, and it was technology-packed (thus my desire to go to the school). The technology package had a voice reinforcement package for every classroom. It turned out it was truly “reinforcement” versus “amplification.” Teachers needed amplification in the room, not “reinforcement.” As a result, the system didn’t work for teacher needs—and specialists from the company were brought out who verified the systems were working as designed—with no benefit for the teachers. As a result, nobody used those systems (I tried, and gave up, as did others). With our new school that opens up next fall, “amplification” is included. That will be a different situation altogether.
However, in our current school, there are only certain classrooms with the ability to do teacher amplification—and my classroom is not one of them.
I decided to break down and buy an inexpensive wireless microphone system (less than $40–the Pyle lavalier system. I’m not going to give it a five star rating, but it works), which I have hooked up into our portable PA system. I now run my computer through a Bluetooth audio connection (more about this later), and then my voice through the lavalier system, all through the PA.
Since adding the microphone, I find myself in a much better state of mind at the end of the day. I can still utilize EnVoy techniques—but I also am taxing my vocal folds significantly less than I used to. The job is still incredibly tough, and many days I still feel as if I am invisible or that I have failed—but some physical wear and tear has been taken off my shoulders, and that makes things a little bit better. When you feel that you are at the bottom, even a little boost is significant.
So, that second tip? Invest in a wireless audio system for your room. I know it might sound crazy…but you owe it to yourself. I was told to buy that system in 2002 and put it off for fifteen years. I was a fool. Don’t follow my foolish example.
At a later time, I will write about the Bluetooth audio connection and how that has been a blessing (and far more reliable than AirPlay). I have also changed my approach to let my iPad be my iPad (after all, I bought it), and to use my school issued computer for projection without mirroring my iPad to that computer. Again, I’ll write about all of this at a later point.
And to anyone going through tough times…many of us are with you, or have been in your shoes. Some people have never been in that position, and they may not be able to empathize with you—so it can be a challenge to share how you are feeling—make sure that people actually want to hear how you are doing, and then share. Sadly, many people are fine just using the superficial, “Things are great,” even when they are not. Hang in there…take care of yourself…do get counseling help if you need it (yes, most of us benefit from such things)…and consider using some technology tools to help you make it through the day.
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